An Interview with Tavi Gevinson, Our Favorite Rookie

What can I say about Tavi Gevinson that you don’t already know? That she’s awesome? That she is the editor of Rookie, and that it is now two years old, which means, we also get Rookie Yearbook Two? That she celebrates girl culture and is a champion of our gender? That her writing is heroic word-architecture, that you can’t just breeze through it, that you have to be present, breathing it as you’re reading it? That to read an entry of hers is a journey into references that extend beyond pop culture, that your brain expands in intelligence and awareness of the world? That she is awesome?

I have to be honest. I interviewed Tavi twice; the first time, we talked about Taylor Swift and how much we love her, amongst other things. But I made a mistake and I didn’t record it. Yep. I will repeat. I. Did. Not. Record. It. However, she was nice enough to get on Skype with me to talk again. And we got into it.

How was your day?

It was okay. I really didn’t want this school year to start but today was the day where I was like, okay, so this can be fun. How was your day?

It was okay. I’m in eighth grade so my whole life right now is trying to figure out what high school I can get in to. So not stressful at all. I thought we could talk about strong female characters in pop culture in our interview, so here we go: What are some of your favorite female characters in pop culture?

Let’s see. I really like Enid from Ghost World. Just kind of in general, I find the suburbs and high school (and when I was in middle school, too) all kind of funny and amusing. Ghost World is one of my favorite books and movies. Ghost World, the movie, I have spent at least twenty-four hours of my life watching; I’ve seen it like, 13 times. And the book I’ve re-read so many times. I get something new out of it every time, which is great. Enid’s inspiring to me as a character because she has this way of… She’s kind of like my goal: sarcastic and cynical, which is a part of me. So I have to accept that I’m not super sunshine-y. But she can still be enthusiastic and excited about things and she has an imagination and so that’s what I really like about her.

What is Ghost World about?

Well, the book and movie are kind of different. In both of them she’s the main character, but the book is more about her friendship with her high school best friend; they just graduated high school and they’re kind of figuring out what to do next. The movie is more about her friendship with an older man who she plays a prank on but then actually grows to really like. I think both of them have really common ideas and are mainly about her.

That sounds really cool. I’m going to get the movie and watch it this weekend.

You should. I was in 8th grade when I first watched and read it. It really prepared me for adolescence.

What are your favorite traits about Enid?

Well, like I said, I like that she’s kind of sarcastic. I interviewed Daniel Clowes, who wrote the book and movie; he’s one of my favorite cartoonists. He said when the book and movie first came out, every review described her as this bitter, angry, sarcastic teenager. And she has a little bit of that. He said that she’s also kind of heroic because she’s able to be in this really depressing town, in a really depressing time in her life and in the world and still find things to be excited about. The way he put was, she’s able to see someone on the street, zone in them and create a whole story out of her imagination. I really admire that about her. I have two older sisters, I started reading Seventeen magazine when I was seven and I was always really eager to grow up when I was younger. And because of stuff like Ghost World, I was able to get some of that childlike wonder that people talk about. A book or movie like Ghost World teaches you the importance of hanging onto that as you do grow up.

Oh, I think I would like Ghost World. When I was younger, I had a YouTube account and I’d get really mean comments, like, “You’re only eight, what do you know?” I mean, I was a kid, yes. But I also realized, adults don’t value the opinions of kids. And you were doing a blog when you were young, too.

Oh yeah. I don’t think I became good at writing for a couple of years. I think people paid attention at first because they were shocked that I could even form a sentence because I was 12 and 13. When you’re an adult, a lot of people don’t have good high school or middle school experiences so they block it all out; they don’t remember that teenagers are a lot more self-aware than adults think. So they see a teenager who can write a sentence and they’re shocked. It’s like, no, it’s not such a huge thing. I think people just really underestimate young people.

Yeah. I did a TEDx talk on girl-shaming and feminism…

I cant wait to watch it!

Oh, thank you! And the comments devalued me as a person because I was a “child.” Or men commenting that girls have it so easy because we are allow to objectify guys and I’m like, huh?

Oh my God. Okay, Ruby, listen to me right now. Never read YouTube comments. Don’t even read YouTube comments on a video of someone else. I literally get depressed from reading YouTube comments on an interview on someone I like. I mean, not even stuff about me. It’s like, why do you hate Beyoncé so much? I mean, my TED talk has a lot of nasty comments. I looked at one page of comments and I was like, I can’t! So I think every single person you admire, every single person who puts themselves out there in any way gets hate and that’s just part of it. The irony of someone being like, “Oh, why are you making videos? You’re eight!”, or “Oh, why are you talking about slut-shaming when you’re in middle school?” is: if you’re so smart and old, why are you leaving YouTube comments?

Right? People my age or yours can still be smart and aware of the world, it’s not just the adults who are the experts.

Yeah! Like, one of my favorite movies is The Virgin Suicides. I interviewed Sophia Coppola – who wrote and directed it – for Rookie and I asked her why she makes so many movies about teenagers. She said it’s a time in your life when you can be reflective, when you have time to think about things. When you’re an adult, you could have a job or could have a family or you have all of these obligations. When you’re your age or my age, you have time to really think about things. I think young people are much more in tune with how they’re feeling. I mean, I’m generalizing, but I think because we have so much time to think about ourselves—which is a good and bad thing—I think we’re a lot more aware than people think.

I agree. In seventh grade, I made a video for HelloGiggles about how its not nice to judge people and I talked about wearing make up and people were like “Oh, you’re too young to wear make up!” It’s like, you’re missing the point.

What seventh grader doesn’t like to wear make up? I mean, okay, I shouldn’t say that because I didn’t wear make up in seventh grade because I was having a different phase. But I mean, I think that’s stupid. Now I think I feel very generally understood by people like when I’m interviewed or when I give talks or whatever. I think it’s clear what I care about. Now that Rookie has been around for a couple of years, people get it. But at first, especially with my blog, I remember being so frustrated. You have all these adults being like, “Stupid kids today – all they care about is Twilight or the Jonas brothers!” And then you had a kid like me who was interested in other things. It was like, “Ugh, she’s so annoying, can’t she just get pregnant like all the other 12-year-olds?” Which was a literal comment that for some reason is burned into my brain probably because I was 12 when I read it. People are just grumpy. And it’s like, you can’t have it both ways. I think in your videos you are very articulate. It would be easier to just dismiss you if you were stupid, but because you know what you are talking about it, it makes people angrier, so yeah. People are extra hard on someone like Lorde –  you know, the singer?

Yeah, I like her.

I love her! And I think people are just like extra hard on her because they’re mad that they can’t just write her off because she’s not just a stupid teenybopper pop star. I mean, the other thing about Lorde, she’s singing about things we can relate to. A lot of people hate on her is because she’s young.

Adults just think we’re dumb dumb dumb. Meanwhile, we’re working our butts off for good grades and trying to be environmentally aware and all kinds of stuff.

People our age have been raised to be expected to be the next Mark Zuckerberg and invent Facebook and be super-successful and be a billionaire at 25. I think it makes people really insecure and vicious and lose sight of what is important. Right now, I’m in the college application process. So much emphasis is put on test scores and not what you were actually like as a student or what you were like as a person. I mean this is scary — with college applications going on, I know so many people taking drugs that will make them work faster. Sorry, this is getting really dark. I just hate all this pressure to meet a conventional idea of success. People don’t understand that it’s more complicated than that. The person that seems to be at the top of their field, they have to make other compromises. The person you think is prettiest, that can work against them in some ways. Everything is so much more complicated than it seems. I think when you compare yourself to other people, it’s usually that no one is better or worse, everyone is just different. It’s sad to me that these ideas of success are so limiting, that they make people pursue things they’re not actually interested in or they don’t care about or they crave fame in a toxic way.

We’re going through the same thing right now, except you’re applying to college and I’m applying to high school. I have to hope that I will be accepted into one of these high schools and it’s so stressful. Do you feel that way?

See, that’s so heartbreaking. I’m obviously in a very unique position. I’m really, really privileged that I get to go to college and focus solely on education and not have to focus on starting a career since I’ve sort of already started one. So I understand it is stressful for people because they’re thinking of their future but I just wish it wasn’t so intense. In Europe, it’s common to take a gap year between high school and college, to take a year off and travel. In the States, that isn’t the standard. It’s just go-go-go. I just wish people my age were more encouraged to think about what they truly want.

I think we should be doing what we love.

I think that’s the goal. Though I understand there’s an amount of privilege required to be able to travel on your gap year or whatever. Still, to jump into classes that cost thousands of dollars only three months after high school… it’s not for me, at least.

And sometimes, you have to just take a break from everything. It’s like you’re not going to learn if you don’t take a chance or make mistakes. Failures can lead to success, depending on your definition of both.

You’re so right that failures can lead to success. That’s also what so much great art and music and film and writers comes out of. I listened to an interview with Julianne Moore the other day and she’s talking about all the times she spent in her twenties auditioning for roles and not getting them. That’s encouraging to me, to just know that rejection is something everyone deals with whether you’re writing or whether you’re acting, even non-creative jobs, you deal with rejection. I like listening to interviews with people who I admire who have gone through that. I do think it’s inspiring when people have had to endure something to get to where they are now.

So, with Rookie, it’s clear that there’s an audience hungry for this content. And there’s all this press on you in particular, because after all, you started Rookie. I found one article where you are referred to as the “voice of your generation.” How do you feel when you read stuff like that?

There was once an article about me and the title was, “Is Tavi Gevinson Girl Power’s Last Chance?” I was like whoa whoa whoa, I’m still in high school. I have my own stuff to figure out, too. Yeah, I do feel that pressure sometimes. I think there are two problems with it. One is a little selfish, not selfish but it has to do with just me. It’s that I have my own life and I have my own things I’m trying to work out, just as a friend and a sister and a daughter and a girlfriend and a student before I even think about being a voice of a generation. So there’s that issue with it.

The other issue is that I don’t think deciding that one person is the voice of a generation does any good for that generation, even if that person is relatively smart or ambitious or whatever. They won’t be smart and ambitious and good and articulate and relatable and all of that to all people, they can’t appeal to all members of a generation. They can’t represent everyone. With Rookie, I’m really happy I get to curate it. I’m very happy I get to promote it because I’m proud of it. I try and make it really clear we have 80 contributors; there are so many other voices there and that’s because it would be stupid if I tried to run a magazine for teenage girls and it was all about my life. I think in deciding someone is the voice of a generation or the face of feminism or girl power, you’re setting them up for failure because it’s impossible to be someone all people relate to. It’s also limiting to the members of that generation to say, “Oh, this is the person who represents you.” I know a lot of people don’t see themselves in me and that’s human nature. I think that’s why it can be very frustrating to hear, “Oh, that’s the voice of a generation.” Its like no, no one is benefitting from this decision.

It’s like, a queen must be anointed to represent all teens! Because otherwise, we’re just a generation obsessed with social media.

Right, exactly. I think adults are just as guilty of all of that stuff as we are. I mean, are you kidding? Adults can be just as guilty of narcissism and selfies and all that stuff.

They’re the ones who invented the apps!

Yeah, I know. They know what they’re doing. We’re just using the apps that they make. It’s part of what we were saying before: aging is very scary for a lot of people. It can give them some kind of pleasure to take a shit on the people who are younger than them. Here’s a better way of putting it: the people in the grade above me thought the people in my grade were stupid and the people in my grade think the people below us are stupid. It’s just everyone trying make themselves feel smart but that’s silly. And I’m as guilty as anyone else, you know, I complained about the freshmen once I became a sophomore, too. It’s the cycle of aging. I haven’t really used [my tumblr dashboard] since freshman year. Just the sight of it can give me a panic attack. Even seeing photos of teenagers or a school dance or a girl with her boyfriend, even if like I’ve had those experiences—I’ve had a surprising number of teen movie experiences—I’ll still never look at those photos and relate to them. It’s so weird, the act of looking at photos of other people can breed this sense of insecurity or that you’re missing out. It’s so strange.

That part of feeling insecure reminds me of how much I love the scene in the Perks of Being a Wallflower, where they dance to ‘Come On, Eileen’ and they’re having so much fun. Like, cool is overrated. Fun is where it’s at.

Exactly. And it’s like, what are you going to do when you watch The Breakfast Club and they all dance? Wait – the cool thing is to dance? You shouldn’t even have to worry about being cool, you should just do what makes you happy – you will be so much happier. Even with Lou Reed dying the other day, and everyone competitively being like, oh he meant a lot to me, no he meant a lot to me! And then accusing each other of not actually listening to his music, as if anyone is the official judge…

…it’s like, shut up already.

Absolutely. This isn’t the opportunity for all of us to be like, this is hard for me, I have really cool music taste. It’s this really sad thing that happened and we should just honor him.

Or like, pop music is for losers and only cool people listen to Arcade Fire and it’s like, you should like what you like.

I agree. I love what we’re talking about.

I think music taste is so personal. And it’s hard to separate the music itself from the music videos. I almost want to avoid watching music videos so I can just enjoy the music. Because sometimes you watch these videos, and it’s like, hello, what are you doing?

Lady Gaga used to have really interesting things to say about sex, I think because she would be displaying a really sexy body but also be dressed as a monster. I don’t really see that anymore. At the same time, I think it makes people more ready for someone like Lorde, who is covered up. She has a very distinctive look, it’s kind of witchy. I don’t think she does it consciously as a response to all that, I think it’s just organic; it’s just who she is. Lorde is so interesting to me because she sings about partying and boys and maybe being a bit of a rebellious teenager. She’s a great role model because you can tell that she’s so articulate and eloquent and smart and she’s knows what she’s doing.

So that word, role model. Kim Kardashian is a role model to girls in my school. I saw the photo that Kim Kardashian posted of her post-baby body in the bathing suit, and then she was on Jay Leno and she said it was her “big middle finger to the world on everyone that called me fat.”

Yeah, I mean, I feel very mixed. Part of me is like, well, she became famous for a sex tape; she never really signed up to be a role model for 13-year-olds. Part of me thinks that since people took these exploitative paparazzi shots when she was pregnant, since they called her fat, maybe it’s nice for her to be in control of her own image and take a photo of herself for once.

Right, so she’s back in control of how she wants the world to see her, as opposed to the paparazzi being in control. She’s subverting the power of the male gaze.

At the same time, that photo got thousands and thousands of likes, whereas my friend Petra had a photo on Instagram that was a self portrait of her below the waist to her knees. But she didn’t have a shaved bikini line, you could see her pubic hair peeking out from her underwear. And her Instagram account got shut down. And all of these people were commenting on her stuff and saying, “Oh, that’s so disgusting”, “You should be clean”, “You’re a woman” and all this. She didn’t violate any of the Instagram policies. There are millions and millions of pictures on there tagged “bikini.” There’s that picture of Kim Kardashian. The difference is that Petra was showing body hair—which is a totally natural thing—but it just creeps people out so much.

Finally, what is the mission of Rookie?

I felt I didn’t see anything for teenage girls that respected our intelligence. At the same time, I didn’t want to create something boring and annoying, like New Yorker Jr. I just wanted a mix of writing from different girls and women about their experiences, beautiful photography and illustration, DIYs, playlists, I wanted it to be funny and smart and welcoming. At first I thought it’d be cool to create a home base for a kind of subculture, and then I realized everyone is so much more complicated than that, today especially, where the mainstream/alternative lines are so blurred and everyone is such a combination of things. So we just write about what we like, which is in that blurred area, and try to be honest and not talk down to our readers.

Be sure to check out Tavi and the Rookie crew when they come to your city.